EA’s long-running Madden NFL series often gets a lot of flak for its annual releases that only change incrementally rather than feeling like a full-fledged sequel year after year. This is a sentiment I could never get behind. After all, the goal of the series has always been to provide the most accurate simulation of America’s true sports pastime (suck it, baseball), so there’s not much change that can be added in terms of gameplay rules or mechanics. On top of that, there are usually a slew of new features added each year to make it feel new, despite ultimately being the same experience. So, if you’re a gamer still in this mindset, Madden NFL 13 will do little to change your mind. Long-time Madden players and football fans in general, though, are in for a treat.
Last year’s outing was criticized for playing it too safe, and it seems developer EA Tiburon took this criticism to heart, adding new options for players on the field to determine the flow of gameplay. The most apparent of these is “receiver awareness”, where receivers that aren't far enough into their runs won’t be ready for the ball if you throw it to them too early. This subtle alteration completely changes the dynamic of otherwise familiar plays, putting more pressure not only on the receiver but the quarterback as well, who must patiently wait for his open receiver to be aware of the ball. Luckily, quarterbacks have new juke moves available to them in the pocket courtesy of the left stick, allowing them more maneuvering room to avoid sacks.
The new Infinity physics engine overhauls what you’ve come to expect in a Madden game, though it won’t be apparent at first. Give it some time, though, and you’ll see that this is the most realistic iteration of Madden yet. Tackles still carry the bone-crushing intensity as the last couple of entries, but this time around the new physics engine allows tackling animations to be generated on-the-fly. No more predetermined tackles, meaning animations between players are completely unique. While this makes for exciting gameplay, it often results in odd post-play moments that take you out of the experience, such as players tripping over downed teammates for no apparent reason.
This is too bad, because graphically, Madden looks great. Character models look great (no doubt aided by the aforementioned physics engine) and the dynamic lighting featured in the last game is still an excellent feature. On the other hand, it’s clear that we are nearing the end of this console generation. The Madden series has pretty much peaked graphically, and it looks like all we can expect are incremental advancements until the next generation of consoles hits. At least the game still sounds great, featuring the voice likenesses of over a dozen NFL quarterbacks, including Tom Brady, Tim Tebow, and the Brothers Manning. CBS Sports anchors Phil Simms and Jim Nantz make their debut as Madden commentators, and are a marked improvement over Gus Johnson's performance for the last couple of years. Of course, no one will ever beat the classic John Madden, but hey, you take what you can get.
Returning are the player and coach careers mode, allowing you to take the shoes of either a professional or custom-made player, or a coach, and leading your team to victory. On its surface, it’s what we’ve seen before, but adds in an RPG element to make it more involving. In addition to sculpting your coach or players' background, managing your team, and winning games, the practice modes give you various simulations of specific game scenarios you must win in order to earn experience points. The harder the practice scenario, the more experience you get (can you come back 35 - 3 in the third quarter?). These experience points can then be spent to improve your coach or player. These experience points can also be earned through achieving certain milestones in your career (getting X passing yards in a season, etc.), though failing to achieve these milestones can result in you getting demoted, or even fired. This addition adds a huge amount of depth to the career modes, though it feels like it takes an excessive amount of experience to climb up the ranks. If you so desire, you can even take on the avatars of NFL legends such as Barry Sanders, Walter Peyton, or Jerry Rice, controlling them from their rookie days to their rise to greatness.
Madden NFL 13 adds and improves plenty enough to write home about, but I still have a few misgivings about the package. There are still the usual AI hiccups - receivers making no attempt to catch a ball right in front of them, defenders making the wrong coverage, and so on - but these issues are nowhere near as pertinent as they were in previous entries. More troublesome are the frequent framerate dips, especially during replays. It seems odd for a series that prides itself on its presentation, and it’s a darn shame.
With its new engine, new features, and improved presentation, Madden NFL 13 provides the most in-depth, immersive entry in the series so far. At the same time, the new engine often works against it to produce illusion-breaking glitches and player quirks that take you out of the experience. Still, it’s nice to see Madden go out of its way to produce more than just an incremental update (especially this late into the console cycle), so the game has to be commended for that. Presentational issues aside, Madden NFL 13 is an easy recommendation for fans of the series.
This review is based on an Xbox 360 copy of Madden 13, provided by the publisher.